Penelope's inner world had been corrupted beyond measure, the soil salted, the sun pocketed by thunderheads, the air rendered unbreathable. She was too terrified to return for fear that Thorneburg would launch another vicious attack on her mind.
But he will anyway, whether you're awake or asleep, in this world or another one. You can't escape.
It was relatively safe during the day, as he was busy with other patients, but during the night, anything could happen. She had no roommates and the nurses were always absent during these periods. Thorneburg himself should have been absent too; he was a day shift doctor.
It was like he lived at this place, like he loved it so much he didn't want to leave. He admired all its twists and turns and hideous changes, almost communed with it, as though it weren't just a piece of architecture, but an entity alive.
“I live for my patients,” he'd say to visitors, and the responses would always be congratulatory smiles and words of admiration. In daylight he seemed like an admirable person; with a wry sense of humor, sharp wit, and genuine concern for others.
But instead of light revealing his true nature, the darkness revealed him instead.
When the overheads flickered and finally failed he would be there as surely as a cellar harbored a menagerie of spindly-limbed hunters. Like them, he did this because he was hungry, because something inside him needed it in order to remain here.
Had he always been this way? Had he once been a good man but now surrendered to his vices, or had Sunnygrove itself warped him and driven him secretly mad?
Penelope would quiver and ache after his departure, and she took showers as hot as she could stand (ignoring fears of things in the drains) to wash away the taint, to no avail. No one knew. If they did, they didn't say anything and they didn't care. Penelope couldn't remember if she'd tried to tell them before, but didn't dare try now.
Not too long ago, Thorneburg had come into the room in the dead of night and stood over the bed, hanging from a wisp of gossamer, (lies, just lies) arms stretched out. He seemed to know that Penelope was awake. Perhaps because she was afraid. They picked up on it when you were afraid.
In a low, shuddery voice he talked about a place called Elsewhere and the “Wraith,” which allowed him to make people see and hear things that weren't there, and “renovations.” That seemed to be a euphemism for the disturbing reality shifts that went on around here.
He'd slunk closer to the bed, breath smelling faintly of peppermint, and beneath that, alcohol. Maybe that was why his face was always flushed, because he drank. How come no one knew?
With a slow, staggering gait he'd gotten closer and closer, taking his sweet time, because she was strapped down and wasn't getting away. And before his hand had made contact with her skin Penelope dropped back into that safe, beautiful but always lonely world, unaware of what happened next and not caring at all if she ever woke up again.
"Along came the spider, and sat down beside her, and frightened Miss Muffet away."
Come on, Little Miss Muffet, I want your curds and whey.
She was running out of defenses. Thorneburg was an expert at taking apart the architecture of hope, brick by brick, until he reached your foundations; everything that made you unique and happy. He would find your tender belly and sink his fangs in and suck until there was nothing left. Just an empty shell kept animated by a body that constantly expressed its desire to die.
Penelope's sanctuary had crumbled, but there had to be some corner deep down inside that he could not reach, some pocket of air in the abyss.
Remember, sweetie, no one can hurt you unless you let them. Kindness kills evil every time.
I'm sorry, I don't know if I believe that anymore!
After the "incident" had passed and a few hours had gone by, Penelope was allowed to come to the day room for a short time under close supervision by orderlies. They stood behind the pane of glass separating the hallway from the day room, and she felt like she were in a zoo.
She was sitting at a drawing table near the window, colored pencils and colored paper scattered around her, debating on whether to use pink or green. She had always loved to draw but right now it was so difficult to concentrate, let alone create anything halfway good. The drugs were still in her system and she was still numb from the trauma of the spider's latest visit.
Outside, a beautiful autumn day breathed, sunlight sparkling and leaves whirling and people walking about in Sunnygrove's well-groomed garden and courtyard. Out there in the world, people were happy, free.
Other people have it worse than you, but that probably isn't any consolation.
There were a few other patients in here, all of them older and tougher-looking, probably hating Penelope for her weakness and immaturity. Why couldn't they just love her? Mom had taught her to love everyone if possible, but that was beyond her now, as she didn't even love herself.
She'd seen Thorneburg in the hallway on the way here. His eyes were dull and bloodshot, and the nasty bruise on his throat was like a dark patch of decay. He also had a broken nose; a bandage messily taped across it. Apparently someone else had also been fed up with his mind games. Regardless, that look of triumph wasn't gone. If anything it was even stronger.
When no one was looking, he glared venomously at her.
A glare that said, tonight, you and me. Business.
Slowly the glare morphed into a smile, and he walked away, down the hallway to his office.
Penelope wondered how many others there were, other girls like her who'd come here for help and instead had their innocence stolen by this monster. She'd overheard conversations and knew some of Sunnygrove's secrets, surprised at how much they said when they didn't think someone was entirely “here” Or maybe they just didn't care, because who would believe her? This place wasn't normal and the therapies conducted here were as twisted as they were impossible.
Thorneburg was praised “for his competence, patience and concern for the well-being of those he treated.” There were nice bronze plaques on the wall in his office. People were recommended to him all the time, and still his web grew, new victims added to the collection, and Penelope hated him, wished she'd hurt him worse than she had.
I'm disappointing you, mommy. You wouldn't want me to be like this, but I can't help it.
There was one conversation that kept coming back to her, before she knew Thorneburg was the spider, before she'd retreated fully into her own cocoon. He'd been patiently working at her for weeks trying to reach a “breakthrough,” and though Penelope was rather detached from reality, she wasn't as far gone as she let on.
He wanted you to wake up. That's what all this was for; to bring you out of it so he could say he did, and also so he could torment you more.
Penelope had given up trying to figure out the hows and whys. Insane things happened here, because this was a crazy hospital. And that was that.
“Is there a reason why you didn't want to take a shower this morning, Penelope?” Thorneburg sat up straighter in his seat, tapping a pencil on the arm of the chair in hopes of attracting her attention. The office was uncomfortably cold and despite the warm choice of color and decor, it came off as stark, phony. A fake potted plant with large waxy leaves stood in the corner, looking sad and misplaced, not unlike his current patient, Penelope Guardwell.
The girl was silent, half-slumped in the leather sofa across from him, her gaze in an expression of perpetual, disconnected surprise which abated slightly when she spoke. She had a Southern accent and a faint lisp. “I couldn't, or else the things living in the pipes would eat my skin off.”
“Oh?” he grunted, furrowing his brow. Delusions and dissociative disorders were often his specialty, and the most extreme cases intrigued him. The death of Penelope's much-loved mother had played a role in the creation of these elaborate inner fantasies and subsequent withdrawal into deep catatonia, but lately they had become much darker and stranger. He wasn't at a loss on why.
“They're really small and live in the water," she continued softly, toying with the hem of her chocolate-brown sweater. "If they bite you, your skin falls off. But you don't die. They want you alive. Fresh.” Penelope spoke in a matter-of-fact monotone as she said this but the tremble of her lower lip betrayed her agitation.
“How did you find out about these things?”
“I had a dream where they ate me. I was all gone; used up. But I couldn't leave my body. I was dead, but I couldn't leave. Trapped here. Just like them.”
He gave her one of those smug looks that silently confirmed suspicion even as he denied it. “You know that couldn't have happened. That was a dream, first and foremost, and you mustn't confuse dreams with reality. Also, who is 'them?”
“The dead people from the time before.”
“What time before?”
“The bad time. They're still here. The bad things keep them here, because they're hungry, always. They never get full.”
For a moment he took on the visage of someone who actually cared; his normally inscrutable features going soft as if whatever iron control the "Wraith" had was loosening, but only for a moment. “Listen closely, Penelope. There are no dead people here. There are no creatures living in the pipes. You have to focus on getting better and understanding why you're here, not on imaginary monsters.”
She lapsed into silence. Her eyes were vacant, and the doctor feared she had fallen into a semi-catatonic state again. After a long time, Thorneburg was about to end the session, until she spoke again in a clear voice.
“I wanna go lay down, Dr. Thorneburg. I have a headache.”
“Your session isn't over yet.”
“Its getting worse. The bright lights and the noise and the memories keep me awake, but I want to sleep.”
“So you have a migraine?”
“We could give you something for that.”
Her eyes narrowed. “No, that's all right. I don't want drugs, I just want to sleep.”
“Its too early to sleep, honey, and we have much to do. Tell me, what memories keep you awake?”
She brought her hand to her mouth, biting on it, staring into space.
“Penelope? Still with me, dear?”
“What memories keep you awake?”
“Memories that aren't mine.”
“How unusual.” Thorneburg sounded amused. “Can you tell me about them?”
“Want to sleep.”
He sighed, trying not to get frustrated, knowing that the reward would come in time. It always did.
“You can sleep when you tell me a bit about these memories, okay?”
“Okay.” She sucked on the knuckle of her left index finger, such a pathetic, childish gesture. Then she stopped, sat up, and for the first time in weeks looked directly into Thorneburg's eyes. Not just a quick glance, but a deep, appraising stare, as if contemplating whether she could trust him.
Damaged and delusional or not, she was perceptive.
“I see people who lived here before. They died here. No one loved them because they were crazy. They were in pain and they never got to see their families again. They never got to live because they were always...always...dead inside. And then they were dead for real and....” She trailed off.
“How long ago do you think this was, Penelope?”
“I hear Frank Sinatra songs all the time. Pretty songs, like what my grampa used to listen to, but then they get ugly and weird. I don't like it when that happens, because I know they're coming. Just like when the lights blink.”
Thorneburg hid his smile by cupping a hand over his mouth, pretending to scratch his beard. “What happens when they come?”
She looked at him again, and this time she didn't look away. Her green eyes, usually overcast, were suddenly free of clouds, revealing the sky. Her voice held fear and a quivering disgust as she said, “First, they lure you in. Then they pry until they know what you are. Then...they rape your mind.”
Thorneburg was shocked; no, more than shocked. He couldn't prevent the expression of surprise from plastering itself across his face. Her switch from a simple childish demeanor to such an accurate summary of what they really did made him wonder if she was really as detached and clueless as she appeared.
“Go on,” he said.
“I don't want to talk about it anymore. They'll hear me.”
Oh, my dear, they already do.